Uneventful Legislative Year May Be Prelude to Exciting 2008

In 2007, Project Vote tracked 485 election bills in 24 states, some of them appearing to promise a consequential impact on voting rights. Bills ranged from good--Election Day Registration and felon voting rights restoration, to bad--voter ID, and everything in between. Few of the bills, however, made it beyond one chamber, making the 2007 legislative year an uneventful one. But it was a preview of what we can expect from the 2008 legislative sessions: an abundance of election bills expanding (or restricting) voter access in a presidential election year.

Photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements to register or vote were among the election bills introduced this year that threatened to limit access to the ballot box. Voter ID law will be the subject of Supreme Court hearing in January 2008 as the high court assesses the constitutionality of Indiana's current photo ID requirement. The verdict could have an impact on the outcome in the 2008 presidential election and a ruling upholding the law will almost certainly lead to a flood of copycat legislation in other states. Although 15 states monitored by Project Vote in 2007 introduced voter ID legislation, most failed to pass even one chamber. The closest call was Texas's HB 218, which passed the House and later became the centerpiece of a media sensation when an ailing Senator Mario Gallegos cast the deciding vote against the restrictive voter ID bill from a temporary hospital bed set up for him at the state capitol.

Gallegos joins many other voting rights advocates and organizations who argue that voter ID laws- are a solution in search of a problem. Rather than deterring polling place fraud, which rarely occurs, such laws instead disenfranchise low income, minority, and elderly voters. Studies show these populations have lower probability of having valid ID and are disproportionately affected by voter ID laws. "Proof-of-citizenship" requirements, another emerging legislative trend tackling so-called fraudulent voting, found its way into 14 legislatures across the country, 11 of which were monitored by Project Vote. None of these bills passed more than one chamber.

Conversely, a variety of bills designed to expand ballot access to otherwise underrepresented or disenfranchised voters were introduced this year, including bills to permit Election Day Registration. Of the 20 EDR bills tracked by Project Vote, just one became state law. North Carolina's HB 91 creates Same Day Registration, which permits people to register and vote on the same day in the period between the close of traditional voter registration and a few days before election day. Seven states permit registration the day of election.

A number of bills restoring voter rights to former felons were introduced, only two of which made any headway. Maryland's SB 488 passed and now allows former felons the opportunity to regain voting rights. Texas' HB 770, a bill requiring the state Criminal Justice Department to provide notice and voter registration forms to newly eligible former felons, passed but was vetoed by the governor.

Mobilizing young voters was a popular issue with state legislatures. Bills to lower the voting age, allow pre-registration, and provide voter education were introduced in 6 the 24 states we tracked. Even a "Student Voting Rights Act" was introduced in Maryland. Of all these bills, just one went the desk of the governor. California's AB 183 was introduced as a bill making voter registration a high school graduation pre-requisite and amended to simply provide "high school voter weeks," or the opportunity for students to register on campus. The bill was vetoed by the governor.

Although hundreds of election bills, good and bad, were introduced in 2007 very few made it through the legislative process. But 2007 is perhaps best understood as a prelude to what will be happening in 2008. What did not pass this year stands a good chance of being re-introduced or re-invented in 2008, including bills expanding voter participation through Election Day Registration initiatives or limiting access through the voter ID proposals.

In order to keep up with the flurry of activity from the 2008 elections, please visit Project Vote's election bill tracking website, www.ElectionLegislation.org, a free service for advocates, reporters and policymakers that includes weekly status updates, bill summaries, links to bill text and daily postings of related news. Click here to view our 2008 Election Legislation calendar, listing the session and bill tracking schedules of the 21 states we will monitor in the new year.

Tags: 2007, 2008, election day registration, election legislation, felon voting rights, Project Vote, Youth Voting (all tags)

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